NORRISTOWN, PA — Preparations are already underway in Montgomery County to facilitate the eventual distribution of a coronavirus vaccine, once one becomes available. But local officials are not optimistic that widespread disbursal will be happening any time soon, noting that the end of the pandemic is not yet clearly in sight.
The county's Office of Public Health is working alongside the Department of Public Safety to get the necessary infrastructure in place, officials said.
"All of that work is in process," Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh said. "We intend to be fully ready as soon as there is a vaccine available."
The county's plan is two-pronged: first, they intend to utilize the six existing community testing sites, located in Ardmore, Lansdale, Green Lane, Willow Grove, Norristown, and Pottstown, to distribute the vaccine.
And secondly, the county also already has in place something called a "point of dispensing" or POD system. The CDC describes these systems, pre-existing in many states, counties, and municipalities around the country, as "community locations at which local agencies dispense and administer medical countermeasures to the public."
Typically, a POD system is a collection of schools, healthcare facilities, and community centers which can transform into such public health sites in emergencies. "There's a big list of possible locations for where this can be done," Arkoosh said.
Some of the sites will be in buildings which can host drive-thrus, and others will involve tents, perhaps similar in layout to early drive-thru testing sites.
However, Arkoosh said that it would likely be some time before this sort of public disbursal was practical. Even once a safe vaccine is approved, there are several aspects which will likely cause a delay in getting everyone inoculated.
"Even if we had one tomorrow, the public has to understand that the population of this country is 330 million people...and vaccines that are the furthest along are requiring two doses," she said.
Moreover, mass production of a vaccine could take some time, and early doses will of course go to first responders, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines of battling the virus. Then there are the high-risk groups whose vaccination is a top priority, like the elderly and the immunocompromised.
"It will take a very long time, probably a minimum of a year, for there even begin to be enough vaccine to vaccinate everyone who wants to be vaccinated," she added.
There is also the ongoing issue of public distrust over vaccines at large, and the role which the politicization of the pandemic may play in implementing a vaccination.
"We must...address concerning racial and ethnic inequities in vaccination rates and speak to the mistrust that many Americans have of governmental immunization efforts," Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said earlier this month. "We must work together to ensure the COVID-19 vaccine builds upon this legacy."
But it remains unclear what plans are in place at the federal, state, or local level to address this concern.
Meanwhile, Montgomery County biopharmaceutical company is among the world leaders in pursuing a vaccine. Plymouth Meeting-based Inovio has announced plans to move into Phases 2 and 3 of its human trials with their DNA vaccine.
Complicating or confusing the distribution process on the county level could be the type of vaccine which is approved. For example, if Inovio's DNA vaccine succeeds in moving forward, all local sites would need to be outfitted with a unique device called a Cellectra in order to administer a dose. The company has received $71 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to manufacture the tool, but it's just one example of the additional hurdles officials will face. Other vaccines could bring their own distinct challenges.
There are currently 14 vaccines worldwide in Phase 2 of trials, with nine in Phase 3, according to the New York Times vaccine tracker.